The Wellcome Trust, the world’s fourth-largest foundation and one of the largest funders of global health, has announced its new strategy, which will focus on infectious diseases, mental health, and global heating.
Speaking to Alliance in an interview published today ahead of Alliance magazine’s latest issue on global health philanthropy, Ed Whiting, Wellcome’s Director of Strategy, shared that Wellcome underwent a year and a half long process of analysing the foundation’s place in the world and the most present health threats, saying: ‘when we looked at the burden of disease and all sorts of other indicators, it felt to us – and it’s a judgement call – that what really jumped out were escalating risks of infectious disease, mental health problems, and the way global heating is changing health.’
Wellcome hasn’t yet decided how its new strategy will shape funding in the three areas but the change is likely to mean tens of millions of new funding for mental health and climate change in the coming years.
As one of the world’s leading funders of global health, as well as one of the biggest with an endowment of £26 billion, Wellcome felt that global heating was among one of the biggest threats to health.
We’ve been absolutely clear with the British government and other governments that support and investment into the WHO, which it urgently needs, is absolutely critical.
‘When we went around the world and talked to the people that we work with, they were saying ‘I’m very happy that you fund my work in fundamental biology, but if we’re all going to burn up in the next 30 years because the climate is overheating and Wellcome does nothing about it, then you will not be fulfilling the responsibility that you have as a large research funder, so you must address this challenge,’” Whiting said. ‘We agreed with that, and we thought that we needed to structure and prioritise this work in a much greater way than we have in the past.’ However, the Foundation ruled out any changes to its controversial investments in fossil fuels. Instead it will focus on using its role as a shareholder to exert influence.
‘I think there have been times when Wellcome has been an investor in a company that has moved to setting out its own net-zero trajectory, and our role has been to argue for that and to say as a shareholder that we would support a company doing that. Over the last few years, you’ve seen a number of companies that Wellcome has invested in moving towards net zero,’ Whiting said.
According to Whiting, with the focus on mental health and infectious diseases, Wellcome plans to look at the places where science and research can make the biggest difference and work to become active in supporting that work.
The foundation has also taken a gradual turn from funding research to focusing on public policy and advocacy, something Whiting says there will be more of in the new strategy. A significant recent example of Wellcome’s work in the policy and advocacy world came when the UK government announced a 30 per cent increase in its funding for the WHO – a proposal that was reported to have been developed in consultation with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust.
‘We’ve been entirely clear and open that we will argue for an effective WHO in any room we’re in,’ said Whiting about the announcement. ‘We’ve been absolutely clear with the British government and other governments that support and investment into the WHO, which it urgently needs, is absolutely critical. We were completely open about saying that to the British government, and we were delighted to see the increased investment.’
The full interview with Ed Whiting is available in today’s Extra column, which launches Alliance magazine’s focus on global health philanthropy – the subject of an in-depth special feature in December’s print issue.
Upcoming issue: Global health philanthropy
At £46 billion each year – almost a quarter of all grantmaking – philanthropy spends more on health-related causes than anything else. As the Covid-19 pandemic intensified, philanthropy provided critical funding for vaccine development, medical equipment, mutual aid, social welfare, and global health infrastructure. But there is intense debate about how the largest foundations interact with governments, international bodies and pharmaceutical companies and how they should be held accountable to citizens. This issue of Alliance considers new directions for global health philanthropy and explores whether health funding is going where its most needed. It is guest edited by Julia Greenberg, Director, Governance and Financing, Public Health program, Open Society Foundations and Aggrey Aluso, Manager of Health and Rights Program, Open Society Initiative for Eastern Africa.
Also in this issue: Head of Vaccines at the Wellcome Trust, Dr Charlie Weller discusses the Wellcome’s role in the race for a vaccine drawing on lessons from Ebola. Subscribe today!